2017-01-12 21:06:17
Art Review: Velázquez’s Infinite World in a Handful of Portraits

Edouard Manet, his biggest fan, may have called him “the painter of painters,” but Diego Rodríguez de Silva y Velázquez had higher ambitions than that. The Spanish artist, somewhat in shadow after his death in 1660, became a demigod to the young painters who brought modern art into being in 1860s Paris, and who found an ancestor in his flat spaces and hard eye. But where the young moderns of Paris relished their rejections from the official Salons, Velázquez was no outsider.

He was an artist with a political side hustle — by his death he’d made it as high as chamberlain of the palace, that is, the king’s household manager — and his paintings have all the grandeur and intrigue of courtly tournaments. Stand before “Las Meninas,” the prize of the Prado; examine his handlebar mustache, the cross on his doublet, the impressionistic ruffles of his sleeves. What other painter would have the nerve to put himself in such prominence in a royal portrait, and to relegate King Philip IV himself to the mirror in the back?

Velázquez painted no more than 120 works, and so full-scale exhibitions, like the adventurous 2015 retrospective at the Grand Palais in Paris, are rare. But the Metropolitan Museum, which mounted its own Velázquez bender in 1989, currently has a rewarding display of portraits by the painter: four of its own, one from a private collection, and two from the Hispanic Society of America, the underappreciated uptown institution now closed for renovations. It’s just a single wall, but it’s a workout. These less courtly canvases show another side of the artist; the men and women against flat brown backgrounds convey the sympathy that accompanied, and sometimes was smothered by, his towering ambition.

The portraits from the Hispanic Society have been thoroughly cleaned by the Met’s conservators, and one of them is fresh enough that it seems like a new discovery. “Portrait of a Young Girl” (circa 1640) is an exacting yet sensitive picture of a child who might be 6 or 7 years old but whose keen eyes and high shoulders give her the unruffled bearing of a young woman.

It had been caked with layers of varnish, though, and cleaning has revealed the easy brushwork of her diaphanous dress, whose seams are rendered with confident slashes of brown, and of her black hair, cut into a triangular bob. (The Met’s website shows before-during-after photographs of the portrait, and you can drag a slider across the paintings to watch the jaundice disappear.)

Though she’s not identified, she did not belong to the Spanish royal family; some art historians have speculated she may be the artist’s granddaughter. Women were only rarely subjects of Velázquez’s portraiture, but this show features three. The girl hangs beside a darker, somewhat hasty portrait of a peasant girl, which is privately owned, and the Met’s more worked portrait of the Infanta María Teresa, whose heavy wig is weighed down further by a dozen butterfly clips.

The other restored work is the Hispanic Society’s portrait of Camillo Astalli-Pamphili, a Roman aristocrat whose connections got him into the church. Born into genteel poverty, Camillo was made a cardinal by his distant relative, Pope Innocent X — whom Velázquez had also painted, and who reacted to his own portrait with the notorious exclamation “Troppo vero”: “too real.” (It hangs in Palazzo Doria Pamphilj, the family museum, in Rome.)

Where the glowering Innocent X portrait radiates authority, Camillo appears softer and shier here, with a red biretta plopped on his head like a question mark. Yet conservation has revealed that the painting of the pushy cardinal was sliced on the left and bottom — meaning that this portrait, somewhat dutiful now, originally had a bolder asymmetry.

The three remaining portraits (two attributed to Velázquez, one to his workshop) are of men in semi-profile. Two are of anonymous men, and the more dashing one was reattributed to Velázquez in 2009, after cleaning revealed subtler brushwork, especially in the curly hair. The subject looks a bit like Velázquez himself — he has the same mustache — but whether or not it’s a self-portrait, the acuity of the skin tones and eyes make it a signal act of close observation. Another anonymous, mustachioed man is painted at a more acute angle and with somewhat less finesse; the sitter, older, gives us the side-eye. The Met credits it to Velázquez’s workshop, and it may be by Juan Bautista Martínez del Mazo, the artist’s son-in-law.

And at center is the Met’s absorbing, princely portrait of Juan de Pareja, Velázquez’s enslaved assistant. Like Velázquez, Pareja was born in Seville; he is identified in contemporaneous accounts as mestizo, or of mixed racial background, and his coppery skin stands out against his impressive white lace collar. Many artists in Golden Age Spain had slaves in their studios, but hardly painted them. Velázquez, though, depicts Pareja as a man of character and even independence, his arm crossed before his body like a soldier. Velázquez emancipated Pareja in 1654, and he went onto to become a portraitist himself.

The portrait of Pareja is rare enough as a sympathetic depiction of a European of color from before the French Revolution, but it has something more: nobility of spirit. The brushwork of that glamorous collar may be far less precise than what you find in 17th-century paintings from Holland or Flanders. But in Velázquez’s portraits, of slaves and royals alike, the easy handling of paint goes along with a penetrating psychological realism, and their rejection of idealization only elevates their subjects further. That is a different kind of realism, one more in tune with what Manet, and Velázquez’s other later fans, would call the painting of modern life.